Collecting calligraphy, paintings and cultural relics allowed people during the Qing dynasty to engage with the past. For others, travelling around the empire was an opportunity to view sites of historical significance celebrated in literature. Knowledge of the written tradition also greatly influenced personal lives.

To gain an understanding of proper moral values young men preparing for a government career studied philosophy, history and poetry. The study of historical figures, for example, allowed candidates to reflect on past choices. Only by mastering this tradition could they hope to make their own mark on history.